'Ridge runner' is fast-paced lookout

April 20, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

BOONSBORO -- Maples and scatterings of other trees were still barren not many days ago in the blue hills leading to nearby South Mountain, but one sure sign of spring had reappeared on the Appalachian Trail.

Thurston Griggs, 78, and lean and as enthusiastic as ever, was back, hiking miles upon miles a day -- after commuting each morning from his home in suburban Baltimore.

Four or five days a week, from April until late November, Mr. Griggs hikes 12- to 15-mile stretches on Maryland's portion of the famous footpath along the crest of South Mountain.

He checks shelters, scans log-books signed by hikers, posts signs prohibiting parties and warning against bears, pushes aside downed tree branches and occasionally picks up litter -- all part of his job on the rocky, often rugged, never uninteresting trail.

His first spring '94 jaunt, checking several segments of a 15-mile stretch of the trail from Interstate 70 south to Weverton Cliffs, overlooking the Potomac River and the states of Virginia and West Virginia, uncovered nothing unusual.

He wasn't surprised to find at two different shelters several experienced hikers to chat with as they broke camp after a bone-chilling night.

Mr. Griggs is a "ridge runner" -- one of a few who serve parts of the Appalachian Trail, but the only one on Maryland's 40-mile section. The full trail stretches 2,144 miles from Georgia to Maine.

He is trail host, maintenance man and security officer. He wears a Maryland park ranger's brown and green uniform, carries a two-way radio and a backpack containing, among other things, a black address book (he threatens to write down the names and phone numbers of uncooperative juvenile offenders), a camera and lunch-time snacks.

"A uniform makes a big difference in your approach," Mr. Griggs says. "It's important to be genial, casual and friendly without being too intrusive. Some people are uncomfortable in front of uniforms."

He begins his treks early in the morning because that's the best time to catch hikers leaving camp, and it also means beating the heat and humidity, particularly in the summer.

There to help

On the trail, Mr. Griggs, who for 20 years before retiring was a physics administrator and professor of Chinese history at the University of Maryland at College Park, keeps one eye out for the illegal: all-terrain vehicles, horses, trash-dumping and camping outside designated areas.

Frequently, he gleans hints of unusual activity from casual conversations with hikers. He prefers to avoid confrontation and calls state park rangers in instances of belligerent drunks or drug users.

But, explains Dave Startzell, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harpers Ferry, W. Va, "he's not there to bust anybody. He's primarily there to educate people about the proper use of the trail and offer assistance for medical or whatever problems arise."

During six years of ridge running, Mr. Griggs' endurance and outdoor skills have been tested. He's hiked all night looking for a lost woman. And he once walked 20 miles -- not an easy accomplishment anywhere on the rugged A.T., as hikers usually call it -- to find the brother of an ill hiker.

He's seen the trail's grim side: three suicides, and sometimes, the homeless and drifters.

He doesn't believe he's ever been in danger -- not even four years ago when he ran into, as he puts it, "a distinctive hiker carrying a duffel bag slung under each arm."

The grungy man, dressed in rags, later killed a young couple from Kansas in a trail-shelter near Harrisburg, Pa., roughly midway to their goal of hiking the full A.T. The 38-year-old drifter, originally from Florida, now resides on Death Row in the Pennsylvania prison system.

"He didn't want to give me any information," Mr. Griggs recalls. "All he kept telling me was that he was going back and forth on the trail. We're always concerned about vagrants. Hikers are open-hearted and will share anything. Vagrants end up feeding off hikers."

Such dramatic events are rare, however.

"People seem to understand the trail is being patrolled," he says. "Last year, it was almost tame, except for a suicide."

All kinds of wildlife

Mr. Griggs has seen just about any kind of wildlife imaginable for the Middle Atlantic: deer, foxes, wild turkeys, snakes, a coyote -- even a black bear last year just north of the chain-link-covered footbridge that carries the A.T. over Interstate 70.

That bear sighting means he now posts signs warning hikers to (( sleep away from their food, since food aromas attract the normally reclusive bears into camps. He believes sightings here have been limited to wandering, not resident, bears, though. Bears are still more of a concern for A.T. hikers in the Shenandoahs and in Pennsylvania.

"The nicest part is meeting hikers," Mr. Griggs says of his job. "People who are on the trail any length of time have character. The temptation is to delay them long enough to hear about their adventures."

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